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The Journey is a short story about two women who have a wrong impression of each other, until they are are forced to sit together on a train journey.
Kajal jostled her way to get down from the bus as it was speeding up crossing the station already. A young boy and a middle-aged lady seemed pretty irritated by Kajal’s hasty manner and her plea to the conductor to stop the bus so that she could get down.
“Ki madam, kotokhon dakchi…Station Station…ghumochilen naki?” (Madam, I’ve been shouting Station, Station for so long, were you sleeping?)
Kajal ignored the conductor without hesitation. It was indeed her fault. Quite aware of the fact that the buses were crowded this time, she should have made her way to the front exit long back. She got down, crossed the road and reached the station platform all within barely 5 minutes. It was already 9.15 a.m. by then. To her surprise, she found that the train had been 15 minutes late and was approaching the platform just then. A sense of victory filled her face with a broad grin. Quickly, she walked forth and stood right in front of where the lady’s compartment would be positioned. A few familiar faces exchanged glances as she boarded the train and quickly took a window seat. It didn’t escape her notice that the compartment was relatively less crowded than the other days. She looked for her friends, friends acquired over months while journeying together to the same destination. She found almost none and got a little disappointed for she would miss the chit chats and gossips during the journey, for these things somewhat invigorated her, adding a pinch of flavour to her otherwise dull, boring life.
Just as the train started and she prepared to take a nap given that there was nothing else to do for the following long 90 minutes, a lady hastily came and sat right in front of her on the opposite side window seat. Kajal knew this lady to be Seema and felt a little awkward as Seema was one of the most talked about passengers in this daily 9 a.m. train. Although Kajal never found anything wrong with the dresses and the heavy make-up Seema wore every day and even quite admired her collection, she had to nonetheless participate in the gossip that came from her so-called friends and the discussions brilliantly helped in passing time.
Kajal knew this lady to be Seema and felt a little awkward as Seema was one of the most talked about passengers in this daily 9 a.m. train.
She knew from their discussion that Seema worked as a receptionist in some five star hotel in Kolkata. However, the other ladies were of the opinion that apart from working in the hotel, she had some “side profession”, which allowed her to drown herself in expensive clothes, accessories and make-up. And this side business was the reason why, according to some, she got back home as late as 10 p.m. in the down train, often accompanied by a man to the station. Kajal never felt the urge to question them about how they knew so much about Seema’s whereabouts. However, Kajal knew in her mind that Seema was aware of the discussions going on behind her back though she admirably preferred to ignore them.
“Left alone today?”
Kajal was drifting off to sleep with some random thoughts in her mind when suddenly the question woke her up with a jolt. The train had also slowed down and now it stopped midway between two stations, waiting for the next signal.
Seema was looking at her and smiling. She was wearing a white shirt with sophisticated frills and had teamed it up with a black trouser and black new cut shoes. Her hair was tied up neatly into a bun and a pair of diamond studs dazzled in her ears. The right mix of eye liner, shadow, blusher and lipstick made her otherwise average features stand out.
Kajal felt uneasy. It was the first time she was looking at Seema so closely. Within a moment, she became conscious of the fact that she was wearing a simple cotton salwar kameez and unlike Seema’s, her hair was parted in the middle with a dab of sindoor strategically hiding the consistent loss of hair.
Gathering composure, Kajal replied trying to put up a fake smile, “Not really. What’s there to be alone?”
Seema continued, “The compartment feels empty today though it is true only for the lady’s compartment. The general ones are crowded as usual. I guess yesterday there was some puja or upvash that most women perform, hence they must be too tired for office today. Where do you work by the way?”
Kajal instantly felt a strange warmth in the way Seema spoke. It was jovial and very much unlike how the other ladies spoke among each other. However, she was taken aback by the question regarding her work for it was not something she usually liked to answer. Kajal worked in a cosmetics showroom where she had to sell cosmetics and persuade and guide customers in case they decided not to buy or could not fix their mind on which one to go for. Her work required her to be standing for not less than 6 hours a day. She worked out of compulsion, out of the need to support her family, especially her 10-year-old son’s education and all this because her husband worked in a factory, which always seemed to be on the verge of closing down. Rohit, her husband, was hardworking but did little to make the situation better. Ever since Kajal started working in this cosmetics shop, Rohit took it for granted that no matter how less he earned, things would be kept going. He carefully overlooked the fact that Kajal, after having undergone a number of surgeries, was not physically fit enough to travel so far to work.
Kajal worked in a cosmetics showroom where she had to sell cosmetics and persuade and guide customers in case they decided not to buy or could not fix their mind on which one to go for. Her work required her to be standing for not less than 6 hours a day.
“I am into sales. I work with a leading cosmetic brand you see”, this was the best answer Kajal could give while also being truthful. She accompanied it with, “And you?” knowing that working as a hotel receptionist is no better.
“I work as an assistant manager in Taj Diganta. I am currently placed in the Food and Beverage department”, Seema replied with her characteristic smile.
Kajal felt embarrassed and extremely regretful of having asked Seema the question, of having revealed her own work status and more than anything else, hated in her mind those other ladies, her so-called journey partners and friends for grossly making up stories based on people’s appearances, without the slightest evidence or knowledge!
It appeared that Seema could understand part of what was going on inside Kajal’s head, especially her surprise.
Seema continued, “I know people associate me with everything that’s outrageous. Not their fault. I do not carry any sign of being married. But tell me, why do I? Why should I keep adorning myself with sankha and sindoor for the one who never played his role as a companion? I have always played my role as a wife, have cooked for him, looked after his family, tried to be by his side in good and bad times. If I have ever done anything wrong, that is, wanting a life of my own, a career, a goal, few aspirations apart from being just a wife.”
Seema’s eyes were getting moist and Kajal was only half understanding what Seema was saying because she was too surprised to hear what she was hearing and all the more baffled by the fact that this gorgeous lady considered Kajal worthy enough to share her life story, that too in the middle of a train!
“Don’t you live with your husband? Kajal helplessly interrupted.
“No. I don’t live with my parents either for they consider it my fault to have chosen my career over my husband. They are kind enough to look after my son. Every day, after office, I go to meet him and spend time with him. I have refused to take my husband’s help. I take care of every need of my son. He is 5 years old and is yet to understand his mother’s plight but I am sure we will soon live together. Presently, I stay in a girl’s hostel.” Wiping off the tears in her eyes, Seema continued, “You know my son loves me, at times, he would keep me back for so long that my brother had to accompany me to the station and make sure that the last train was not gone. I just kept praying that my son grew up to be a gentleman.” Seema finished with a happy smile on her lips and there were tears in Kajal’s eyes.
The train reached its destination. Both of them got down, bid farewell and as usual, got lost in the crowd. Only a faint picture lingered in Kajal’s mind.
Over 15 years go, she had just graduated from college and was looking for a job. The offer came rather unexpectedly as her interview for the post of an assistant to the Managing Director in a mid-sized private firm had not gone too well. No sooner had she happily announced the news to her parents than she learnt that her father had already asked the family of a matrimonial alliance to come over. Irritated by the fact that her father had started negotiating her marriage without her consent, she was even shocked to learn that her prospective in-laws had agreed to go ahead with the negotiation on the pretext that their would be daughter-in-law would not work outside and this was prioritized among other necessary qualifications.
What a rebel Seema was! Kajal wished she could be half as strong, vocal and determined in her life choices and decisions.
Seema, in her office cabin, remembered Kajal’s bubbly face from the morning train and sighed, “How lucky she is to have both a stable family and work and not having to sacrifice any one of the two!”
Image via Shutterstock.
A communication professional, I Iove to stay positive, cheerful and experience life in all its
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